Landed Catholics in a ‘four nations’ context: Class, religion and the politics of the Union in the nineteenth century

Landed Catholics in a ‘four nations’ context: Class, religion and the politics of the Union in the nineteenth century

Dr Aidan Enright (Leeds Beckett University) urges the need for a four nations analysis of landed society and politics during the period of the British-Irish Union.

As far back as 1990 David Cannadine argued that the landed elite of Britain and Ireland in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a ‘supra-national’, ‘British territorial’ elite whose history ought to be considered in a ‘British’ context.[1] Now any attempt to incorporate Ireland into a British historical framework is bound to attract controversy, not least because the majority of Irish Catholics rejected the British connection. But this is not the whole story and Irish historians have in recent years shown how landed and non-landed Catholics played their part in the governance of the British state and the Empire during the nineteenth century.[2] There has not, however, been a ‘four nations’ approach to the study of what the Freeman’s Journal identified in 1838 as the ‘Roman Catholic Aristocracy’ of Britain and Ireland.[3] Such an approach might seem tenuous given that there were so few landed Catholics in Scotland and Wales, but their place in the British elite relied on close links to their more numerous counterparts in England and Ireland. This piece will therefore make the case for a ‘four nations’ study of landed Catholics while recognising that the English and Irish dominate.

After the passing of Catholic emancipation in 1829 landed Catholics in Britain and Ireland gradually established a place for themselves in the predominantly Anglican landed elite of the United Kingdom. What helped cement this position was the fostering of close links through education in English colleges and networks of intermarriage. But who were these Catholics? A good example is the Irish Catholic Charles Owen O’Conor (1838-1906), who was educated in Downside College, Bath; owned large estates in counties Roscommon and Sligo; was MP for County Roscommon, 1860-1880; and married Georgina Perry of Bitham Hall, Warwickshire. It was through the Perry’s that Charles was connected to Sir Piers Mostyn (1846-1912), of Talacre, Flintshire, a minor landowner and Justice of the Peace. Charles’s cousin Roderick (1843-1908), who was educated at Stonyhurst, Lancashire, and became a high-level British diplomat, married into more elevated circles. His wife Minna was the daughter of the Scottish barrister James Hope-Scott and the English Lady Victoria Howard. Lady Victoria in turn was the niece of Henry Fitzalan-Howard (1847-1917), fifteenth Duke of Norfolk and a royal courtier. The experience of the O’Conors was to varying degrees replicated by numerous other Catholics, with religion, land and status being the determining factors. For instance, the one-time Irish Lord Chancellor Thomas O’Hagan (1812-1885), of Belfast, acquired estates in Lancashire and Yorkshire through his marriage to Alice Mary Towneley, of Towneley Hall, Burnley, while Colonel Charles Raleigh Chichester (1830-1891), of Burton Constable, Yorkshire, acquired estates in County Roscommon through his marriage to Mary Balfe. It was during a period of military service in Ireland that Charles became acquainted with Mary and they took up residence at Runnamoat, County Roscommon.[4]

This pooling of social, economic and political capital gave most landed Catholics a unionist-imperialist outlook, but this is not to say that they necessarily adhered to a homogeneous British national identity. Irish Catholics like O’Conor certainly moved in British circles and lauded the virtues of the British constitution, but he frequently chaffed at what he saw as the anti-Catholic prejudices of the English and Ireland’s inferior status within the Union. An English Catholic like Charles Chichester, on the other hand, often complained of what he saw as the troublesome and ungrateful Irish. Nonetheless, landed Catholics were embedded in the British political system, traditionally supporting the Whigs and their successors the Liberals in parliament. But when Gladstone introduced an Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886, the English convert Lord Ripon found himself ploughing a lonely furrow as the majority of landed Catholics opposed it. Although dismayed by the ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ slogan of popular Protestant opposition, Catholic unionists attended meetings and demonstrations alongside Protestants in Britain and Ireland. Indeed, similar to Protestant unionists, they argued that a nationalist parliament in Dublin would lead to the confiscation of property and economic ruin in Ireland, the break-up of the Union, and the demise of the British Empire.[5]

These fears were not altogether exaggerated, but they were not shared by the majority of Irish Catholics who supported C. S. Parnell and the Home Rule Party. Nor were they shared by the immigrant Irish in Britain, who at this point made up the majority of the English, Scottish and Welsh Catholic populations. So landed Catholics in Ireland and Britain found themselves at odds with the majority of their co-religionists on this issue. Having found common cause down through the years on emancipation, disestablishment of the Protestant Church in Ireland, papal infallibility and denominational education, the question of Home Rule now saw landed Catholics’ common class and political interests with their elite Protestant counterparts trump loyalty to their religious tribe. Spawned by generations of common education, friendship, intermarriage, the consolidation of assets and establishing a place in the governing elite, these interests were vested in the preservation of the Union and the Empire. It is clear that we can only come to understand this through a ‘four nations’ analysis of landed society and politics in the United Kingdom during the period of the Union between Britain and Ireland.

[1] David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990), p. 5.

[2] Ciaran O’Neill, Catholics of Consequence: Transnational Education, Social Mobility, and the Irish Catholic Elite 1850-1900 (Oxford, 2014); Matthew Potter, William Monsell of Tervoe 1812-1894: Catholic Unionist, Anglo-Irishman (Dublin, 2009).

[3] FJ, 16 Oct. 1838.

[4] Aidan Enright, ‘The Political life of Charles Owen O’Conor, 1860-1906’ (Unpublished thesis, Queen’s University Belfast, 2011); F. C. Burnand (ed.), The Catholic Who’s Who and Yearbook, 1908 (London, 1908); Diaries of Charles Raleigh Chichester, 1866 and 1868 (Chichester-Constable Papers, Hull History Centre, DDCH/102-103). See also the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

[5] Enright, ‘The Political life of Charles Owen O’Conor’, pp. 58-59, 157-189.

Dr Aidan Enright is a part-time lecturer at Leeds Beckett University where he teaches Modern British and European History, and the history of Empire. He is currently working towards the publication of a monograph based on his PhD thesis on the political life of Charles Owen O’Conor (1838-1906). Aidan tweets as @enright_a.


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